Far From the Tree


Love knows no boundaries.

(2017) Thriller (Sundance Selects) Andrew Solomon, Jason Kingsley, Emily Kingsley, Charles Kingsley, Tyler Reece, Trevor Reece, Derek Reece, Rebecca Reece, Jack, Joe, Leah, Lonni. Directed by Rachel Dretzin

 

When we set out to have kids, it’s only human to have a picture of them in our heads; how they’ll grow up to be athletes, difference makers or famous. We see them as we see the us we wanted to be growing up ourselves; now our kids will get it right. Unfortunately for us, kids rarely turn out exactly the way we picture they will. They have their own ideas of who they want to be not to mention they don’t always turn out physically the way we wanted. Some our born with dwarfism, or with Down’s syndrome.

Andrew Solomon grew up being interested in tragic opera and the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Realizing that he was gay, at first he went into denial, even using sexual surrogacy to try and jump start his heterosexuality. When this didn’t work, he came out to his parents who reacted with disappointment and a notable lack of support  As time went by he began to wonder about kids who turned out very different than their parents or their parents expectations. He wrote a book about it and it turned out to be a New York Times bestseller.

This documentary is based on the book or to be more accurate, inspired by. Solomon himself turns up in interviews to discuss how the book came to be and to put some of the onscreen stories in perspective. The stories themselves are varied and are about different sets of challenges – Solomon’s is the only one about straight parents raising gay children.

Jason Kingsley was born with Down’s syndrome at a time when the condition was little understood and something of a stigma – which it still is, but to a lesser extent. His parents, including his mother Emily who was a writer for Sesame Street refused to warehouse Jason as his doctor suggested. In fact, Emily arranged to have Jason appear on the show which forever changed the way that kids with Down’s syndrome are viewed. Jason continues to be an activist and although his obsession with the Disney film Frozen may cause some eye-rolling (couldn’t he have picked a better film?) he is articulate enough to quote Shakespeare and is a whole lot smarter than he appears.

So too is Jack, whose severe autism makes him unable to communicate conventionally. His parents however refused to give up on him and eventually found a way to allow Jack to communicate using a facilitator and a computer device.

Lonni, like most people, wants to be loved and to love someone. Born with dwarfism has made that a lot more challenging for her. Unspeakably lonely, her mother encourages to attended a convention for the Little People of America and her horizons are instantly opened up. Her mothers and sisters are amazed and pleased that Lonni has perked up discovering that she is far from alone – that there are lots of people just like her in the same boat she is rowing.

Fellow little people Joe and Leah are in a different situation. The two are blissfully, deliriously in love. They go through the challenges of planning a wedding – and then Leah gets pregnant. Joe, who is wheelchair-bound, is about to be a daddy and although the pregnancy has its own degrees of difficulty, both look forward to the experience.

The most heartbreaking story is that of Trevor Reece, a seemingly normal teenage kid who one day woke up and decided to slit the throat of an eight-year-old boy. Arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison, his family struggles to pick up the pieces. Having moved from the urban New Orleans neighborhood they grew up in to a suburban Texas home, they communicate with Trevor regularly. His brothers Tyler and Derek have a hard time reconciling their big brother’s actions with the kid they grew up with.

The stories are all compelling ones and do push all the right emotional buttons. The problem is that we end up spending less than 20 minutes apiece on each story; what we end up with is a summary rather than an in-depth look at how these families coped. That’s a real drawback, particularly in that it makes the film less useful for parents who might be dealing with similar situations. Also Solomon’s segments, rather than giving the context we’re looking for, tend to be a bit more self-referential than I think the film needed.

Still, the movie’s heart is in the right place. The stories are inspiring and even if we don’t get the depth and context we’re looking for we still get a viewpoint not often shown in documentaries other than in passing. Jason’s story, the first one shown, is in many ways the most grounded and when Jason talks at the conclusion of his segment about his future is to my mind one of the best moments I’ve seen in a documentary this year. Those who are fans of the book will likely enjoy the movie but come away a bit disappointed. The overall message of both the book and the movie shouldn’t be discounted though – that those we see as different may have more challenges than we do but are not so different than us than they might appear.

REASONS TO GO: The stories range from inspiring to heartbreaking. The focus is more on the parents than on the kids which is a viewpoint we don’t often see. Jason’s final monologue is goosebumps-inducing.
REASONS TO STAY: The interludes with Solomon seem a bit self-aggrandizing. Having too many subjects keeps any of the stories from resonating as much as they might.
FAMILY VALUES: The film is suitable for family viewing and should even be encouraged for the same particularly for parents who want to teach their children tolerance, empathy and loving without conditions.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Of the stories told here only Jason Kingsley’s appears in the book; all the rest are new.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/20/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews: Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Life, Animated
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Sid and Aya (not a love story)

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A Quiet Passion


Sisters are doing it for themselves.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Music Box) Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine, Duncan Duff, Jodhi May, Catherine Bailey, Emma Bell, Benjamin Wainwright, Joanna Bacon, Annette Badland, Rose Williams, Noémie Schellens, Miles Richardson, Eric Loren, Simone Milsdochter, Stefan Menaul, Maurice Cassiers, Yasmin Dewilde, Marieke Bresseleers, Barney Glover, Verona Berbakel. Directed by Terence Davies

 

Emily Dickinson remains, more than a century after her death, one of the giants of American literature. Little-known in her own time (only a dozen of her poems were published in her lifetime, most of them heavily edited), she lived much of her life as a virtual recluse in her home, rarely coming out of her home and in fact rarely emerging from her bedroom. It was only after she passed away that her sister discovered a treasure trove of her poems and made it her life’s work to see them published and even then she didn’t get the acclaim she deserved until well into the 20th century.

So who was Emily Dickinson? As a young woman (Bell), she was dismissed from Mount Holyoke Academy (nowadays Mount Holyoke College) for her lack of piety. Rather than capitulate to the demands of the headmistress, she stood up for herself much to the bemusement of her father (Carradine). Emily returned home to live with him and her mother (Bacon) as well as her brother Austin (Duff) and most importantly her sister Lavinnia (Ehle), known to one and all as Vinnie.

Now grown into full womanhood, Emily (Nixon) asks and receives permission from her father to use the early morning hours when all else in the household are asleep to write. It is permission, she later explains, she would never get from a husband. Emily remains outspoken about the place of women in the society of the day and she finds a fellow traveler in Vryling Buffam (Bailey) with whom she exchanges barbs at the institutions of church, marriage and society in general. Twirling their parasols like nunchuks, the two make a formidable pair.

As the years pass, Emily maintains an increasingly faint hope of writing something important. She begins to get discouraged and as loss piles upon loss, she grows embittered and more withdrawn from the society in Amherst. Her brother’s infidelity causes a family schism that creates tension in the household, a tension that Vinnie tries in vain to mediate. Emily does get at least one persistent suitor (Menaul) but she is so cruel to him that at last he takes his leave of her. She develops a passion for the married Reverend Wadsworth (Loren) but when he is transferred to San Francisco she is devastated. Thinking herself too plain for marriage, she changes her wardrobe from nearly all black, as was common in the day to all white. As those closest to her die or get married (which Emily likens one to the other), she increasingly withdraws from life.

This is not the Emily Dickinson I had pictured in my head, which shows you how much I know about the great poet. I had always thought her shy and retiring but in fact it was not shyness that made her reclusive. She was forthright and blunt in conversation almost to the point of cruelty. She was an independent thinker as well which was not attractive to men of the era but Emily didn’t need a husband to feel complete in life.

Nixon gives a performance that may be the high water mark of her career, which is saying something. She’s one of those actresses who rarely gets much acclaim but has over the years quietly accumulated a resumé of distinction, one that would be the envy of any actress. Best-known for her work in Sex and the City, she really inhabits the role of Emily Dickinson, reading her poetry in voice-overs to help put context into the events onscreen. It is a forceful performance that only grows more powerful as the movie goes on.

She gets plenty of support, particularly from Ehle who is a marvelous actress in her own right and like Nixon doesn’t always get the acclaim she deserves. As Vinnie, Ehle is the embodiment of compassion and loyalty. Carradine also excels as the somewhat stiff-necked father, and Bailey almost steals the movie as the ebullient and outgoing Vryling who it is a shame is a fictional composite. I would very much like to believe that such a woman existed at that time – and perhaps she did – just not in Emily Dickinson’s world.

There is a definite Merchant-Ivory vibe her in the sense that we get a lush visual experience with mannered performances and dialogue that reflect the era. Especially early on in the film, the actors seem to struggle with the language and the overall effect is a little awkward but as the movie goes on it feels a little bit more organic, although the delivery is still somewhat deadpan.

This is definitely a movie for adults with adult attention spans. It might seem a little long (and definitely younger audiences will find it so) but in the end this is a movie to be experienced, to be allowed to envelop the viewer and bring them into the world of Emily Dickinson in mid-19th century Amherst. I can’t honestly recommend this movie to everybody – hence the somewhat middling rating – but for cinema buffs, lovers of history, lovers of poetry and those who have cinematic patience, this is a movie that will transcend its score and reel you in.

REASONS TO GO: Nixon gives a superb performance. Davies uses Dickinson’s own poetry to accentuate the various scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the actors sound uncomfortable with the language and style of 19th century New England. The movie is a bit on the long side and younger audiences may find it tough sledding.
FAMILY VALUES: There is one scene of sexual material, a disturbing image and some thematic material inappropriate for children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Davies used six different biographies of Dickinson as source material in order to get her character right. He believes that she was a legitimate genius.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hours
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Wall